Reasonable Accommodation Obligation Extends to Workplace Access
A recent case reminds employers that, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they must provide reasonable accommodations to allow employees with disabilities to obtain the same workplace opportunities as those without disabilities – including access to the workplace.
In Burnett v. Ocean Properties, Ltd., an employee in a wheelchair struggled with the doors to his workplace, which were heavy, opened outward, closed automatically, and positioned at the top of a slope. In fact, he was injured at one point. He repeatedly requested push-button, automatic doors, to no avail. The employer, in fact, stated that the doors were compliant with the ADA public accommodations standards when constructed. Ultimately, the employee resigned and sued for failure to accommodate. The employer argued that he did not need an accommodation in order to perform his job – in fact, he excelled at it – and further argued that the requested accommodation was not reasonable.
As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit noted, the fact that the employee was able to enter the workplace (at risk of bodily injury) and perform his job once inside did not mean that he did not need an accommodation or that the requested accommodation was unreasonable. Rather, “[a] ‘reasonable accommodation’ may include … making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.” The First Circuit cited Supreme Court precedent that employers must provide reasonable accommodations to enable disabled employees “to obtain the same workplace opportunities that those without disabilities automatically enjoy.” (Emphasis in original). In this case, the existing doors were not readily accessible to and usable by the employee, and he was entitled to a reasonable accommodation.
Many times employers focus on the reasonable accommodation obligation only with regard to the employee’s ability to perform their essential job functions. But, as this case warns, that obligation extends further, and may include things such as access to the workplace.